“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” So begins one of the most beloved hymns of all times, a staple in the hymnals of many denominations. The author of the words was John Newton, the self-proclaimed wretch who once
was lost but then was found, saved by amazing grace. Newton was born in London July 24, 1725, the son of a commander of a merchant ship which sailed the Mediterranean. In 1744 John was impressed into service on a man-of-war, the H. M. S.
Harwich. Finding conditions on board intolerable, he deserted but was soon recaptured and publicly flogged and demoted from midshipman to common seaman. Finally at his own request he was exchanged into service on a slave ship, which took
him to the coast of Sierra Leone. He then became the servant of a slave trader and was brutally abused. Early in 1748 he was rescued by a sea captain who had known John’s father. John Newton ultimately became captain of his own ship, one
which plied the slave trade. Although he had had some early religious instruction from his mother, who had died when he was a child, he had long since given up any religious convictions. However, on a homeward voyage, while he was attempting
to steer the ship through a violent storm, he experienced what he was to refer to later as his “great deliverance.” He recorded in his journal that when all seemed lost and the ship would surely sink, he exclaimed, “Lord, have mercy upon us.” Later
in his cabin he reflected on what he had said and began to believe that God had addressed him through the storm and that grace had begun to work for him. For the rest of his life he observed the anniversary of May 10, 1748 as the day of his
conversion, a day of humiliation in which he subjected his will to a higher power. “Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ’tis grace has bro’t me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” He continued in the slave trade for a
time after his conversion; however, he saw to it that the slaves under his care were treated humanely. In 1750 he married Mary Catlett, with whom he had been in love for many years. By 1755, after a serious illness, he had given up seafaring
forever. He decided to become a minister and applied to the Archbishop of York for ordination. The Archbishop refused his request, but Newton persisted in his goal, and he was subsequently ordained by the Bishop of Lincoln and accepted the
curacy of Olney, Buckinghamshire. Newton’s church became so crowded during services that it had to be enlarged. He preached not only in Olney but in other parts of the country.
In 1767 the poet William Cowper settled at Olney, and he and Newton became friends. Cowper helped Newton with his religious services and on his tours to other places. They held not only a regular weekly church service but
also began a series of weekly prayer meetings, for which their goal was to write a new hymn for each one. They collaborated on several editions of Olney Hymns, which achieved lasting popularity. The first edition, published in 1779, contained
68 pieces by Cowper and 280 by Newton. Among Newton’s contributions which are still loved and sung today are “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” and “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” as well as “Amazing Grace.” Composed
probably between 1760 and 1770 in Olney, “Amazing Grace” was possibly one of the hymns written for a weekly service. Through the years other writers have composed additional verses to the hymn which came to be known as “Amazing Grace”
(it was not thus entitled in Olney Hymns), and possibly verses from other Newton hymns have been added. The origin of the melody is unknown. Most hymnals attribute it to an early American folk melody. The Bill Moyers special on “Amazing
Grace” speculated that it may have originated as the tune of a song the slaves sang.
In 1780 Newton left Olney to become Director of St. Mary Woolnoth, St. Mary Woolchurch, in London. There he drew large congregations and influenced many, among them William Wilberforce, who would one day become a
leader in the campaign for the abolition of slavery. Newton continued to preach until the last year of life, although he was blind by that time. He died in London December 21, 1807. Infidel and libertine turned minister in the Church of England, he
was secure in his faith that amazing grace would lead him home.
Now with the Authors History explained, I would like to add my own thoughts on this majestic piece of Music. Ive been raised in a church all my life, so its not surprising that Ive heard, and sang, this hymn before. I have
always found the word to be encouraging and hopeful. But it wasnt until I first heard the hymn played on Bagpipes that I fell in love with the music. I was watching a movie called Tommy Boy, produced by Paramount Pictures in 1995, when I
heard played on the bagpipes during a funeral in the movie. The second I heard it I knew that it was probably the greatest piece of music Ive ever heard played. I liked it so much, in fact, that I have requested that Amazing Grace, played on the
bagpipes, be performed at my grave site when I die.
In case youve never heard the piece before, I will finish my paper with the original six stanzas that appeared in both the first edition in 1779 and the 1808 edition, the one nearest the date of Newton’s death. It appeared under the
heading Faith’s Review and Expectation, along with a reference to First Chronicles, chapter 17, verses 16 and 17.
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
“Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!
Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.
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